A month after police shootings, trauma goes on for neighbors

Deep in the shadows of sorrow, Joanne Dubaniewicz and Maysaa Chok relive the chaos of April 4.

The two Stanton Heights residents, among others, find themselves replaying the ambush killing of three Pittsburgh police officers on their block of Fairfield Street. They can still hear the crack of gunfire that sliced open the sunny morning. They can still see the blood. They can still feel the fear today, a month and a day removed.

Both of their homes were struck by bullets. Both watched in helpless horror as Officer Eric G. Kelly lay mortally wounded on the street just outside their homes while a gunman continued to fire.

From her vantage point on the second story of her house, Ms. Dubaniewicz also could see Officers Paul J. Sciullo II and Stephen J. Mayhle had been slain across the street outside 1016 Fairfield, the home of accused gunman Richard Poplawski, 22.

For them and who knows how many others in their community, the disorientation and drama endure.

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For help with coping with the aftermath of violence or crime, contact the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime at their 24-hour Assistance Helpline 412-392-8582 or their Web site.


"It's just shock, disbelief, your sense of security just goes out of the window completely. It's still hard to get back," said Ms. Dubaniewicz, 37, who lives at the corner of Fairfield and Antoinette Street.

"I can't even do things now I enjoy because when you lose your sense of security, when the unthinkable happens, it makes you think differently on a daily basis."

Ms. Chok, Mr. Poplawski's next-door neighbor, faced the added trauma of fleeing with her husband and their 2-year-old son when the city police SWAT team took positions inside their home at 1020 Fairfield.

She still sees officers "with big guns" in her kitchen. She still sees police surrounding the area. She still feels the terror of not knowing if she, her husband, Tarek, and their son, Mohamad, would survive because the gunman was still firing next door.

Even in the couple's native country of Lebanon, said Ms. Chok, 30, they never experienced such violence and fear.

"I came here to be safe and I see something here I never saw over there," she said. "Everything in the house reminds me about everything. I can't sleep in my bedroom because the window has three bullet holes in it and the other window is so close to [Mr. Poplawski's house]. I'm sleeping with my baby now.

"I have trouble sleeping. I hear voices and I wake up and find out there's nothing. I can't go back to sleep. It seems that every day it's getting worse."

Experiencing flashbacks, sleeplessness or frightening thoughts, or feeling irritable, on edge and even guilt are normal reactions after experiencing a dangerous event, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

The condition, called acute stress disorder, can last for several weeks. Even people who didn't witness the event firsthand but watched the drama unfold on TV or read about it in the newspaper may react in such a way, experts said.

"We're more concerned with people if they didn't have this kind of reaction. What kind of society would that be?" said Mary Jo Harwood, associate director of programs and services for the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime. The center is assisting those affected by the April 4 tragedy.

"You don't see people gunned down in your neighborhood and not have a reaction. We try to assure people that they are having a normal reaction to a horrific event.

"Shock is a defense mechanism that doesn't let the body or brain process too much reality at one time," she said. "When shock wears off, it's like novocaine wearing off from a visit to the dentist. You feel more and more uncomfortable as the shock wears off. Support is really necessary."

Any daily information coming in through the five senses that reminds people of an horrific event can trigger a reaction, she said. Even something as benign as a crystal blue sky and bright sunshine can evoke the morning when the officers were killed.

With such a trigger, the heart may race, palms may sweat and a feeling of helplessness may return. That's because the brain reverts to the reactive "flee or fight" mode it experienced that day, said Ms. Harwood, a licensed social worker who helped counsel New Yorkers in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

"People describe it as being like a zombie walking around. If you talk about it, you can switch out of the reactive state. You have to retrain your brain" to recognize that what is being triggered is a memory and not current reality, she said.

The key to retraining the brain is talking about those feelings and, in return, receiving affirmation that it's a normal reaction. Sometimes it's enough to do so with friends and family. For others, a call to the CVVC's 24-hour assistance help line might be what's needed; and still for others, in-person counseling may be necessary..

"When people are made aware of the things in the environment that can remind them of the experience, they can feel more in control and not like they're losing their mind," Ms. Harwood said.

"When you're not aware of this, you have increased agitation, irritability, you feel like your life is out of control. That's the whole idea of getting people to talk about it, to identify what they're feeling. You need to acknowledge it and not let a horrendous event take over."

If people don't address what they are experiencing, what had been a normal reaction can morph into the more serious post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Red flags are you can't stop crying, you're not sleeping, not eating, you can't carry on your day-to-day responsibilities without thinking about what happened," Ms. Harwood said.

"If it is severely impacting the quality of your day-to-day life, it's time to reach out and get some help."

Ms. Dubaniewicz said she may be among those who need counseling. Her live-in boyfriend, Randy Daniel, 38, said he's not having a similar reaction because of his experiences as a combat veteran of Operation Desert Storm.

"I'll probably get some therapy just to get over that feeling of being afraid and panicky, having a hard time sleeping," Ms. Dubaniewicz said. "Just getting back to feeling secure, it's just going to take maybe a little bit of therapy."

She paused.

"And prayers."

A registered nurse who recently lost her job, Ms. Dubaniewicz said she cannot stop thinking about Officer Kelly, 41. She knows she couldn't have done anything to help Officers Sciullo, 37, and Mayhle, 29, who were slain when they responded to a domestic call at Mr. Poplawski's home.

But she is wracked by guilt she didn't go to Officer Kelly, who was shot across the street from her home as he came to help his fallen colleagues.

In her head, she knows doing so would have been a suicide mission -- the gunman repeatedly fired an AK-47 from his bedroom window, wounding and pinning down Officer Timothy McManaway as he rushed to aid Officer Kelly, authorities said. Still, in her heart, she wishes she had done something, anything.

"I think about Officer Kelly all the time. When I saw his family come to see the scene of the crime, I went back inside because I was ashamed," she said, her voice choking, her gaze far away.

"People say, 'You would have gotten shot.' Well, if he's risking his life every day doing his job, why couldn't I have gone out there? I just feel if there was just maybe one little thing I could have done, or anybody could have done, and it just keeps going through my mind over and over again, 'Could we have done something?'

"I don't think that's very useful to do that, but that's what I keep doing."

Ms. Dubaniewicz said her thoughts of that day intrude so much into her life that she no longer can take part in activities she once enjoyed.

"I tried to go kayaking, which I'm comfortable with, but I couldn't do it. I had a panic attack," she said. "I was convinced I was going to tip and drown."

She pulled the kayak off the river and sat for 21/2 hours to wait for her friends to finish their trip.

"You think there's a certain amount of danger in whatever you do. But when the unthinkable occurs it's a very strong reminder that anything you do, something horrible can happen.

"You can step outside your house, for instance, and get shot or a meteor can land on your head. Just that kind of silly stuff, which I guess isn't so silly but that's what I'm going through, that's how I'm feeling."

For Ms. Chok, fear is triggered just by seeing the boarded-up Poplawski house next door. Or the 160 American flags with black ribbons fronting every house -- except the gunman's -- for two blocks on both sides of Fairfield Street.

Or being in her kitchen where the SWAT team entered. Or looking out of her kitchen window while doing dishes and thinking of the police who encircled her neighborhood during the standoff.

"They say it's normal but it's a bad memory. I was feeling better when the cops were here all the time. When they left ... sometimes I have imagination," she said.

She said she received a fact sheet about signs of acute stress disorder "and I have most of them. They say a good thing to make it go away is exercise and talking to people, to let it out. I'm working on it."

But, Ms. Chok said, she and her husband, who owns Pesaro's Pizza in Lawrenceville, can't shake the memory of Officer Kelly lying near their sidewalk, the only wounded officer they could see. They called 911 but were told to stay put because no one could get to Officer Kelly while the gunman was still shooting.

Even so, Mr. Chok was about to rush to Officer Kelly's side.

"He opened the door and said, 'I'm going to help him.' I said, 'No. The police cannot help him. How are you going to do this? He will shoot you,' " she recalled.

And then they saw Officer McManaway fall wounded.

She, too, is troubled they couldn't help Officer Kelly. She keeps seeing his face.

"He looked so nice you just felt you just had to help him and then his friend got shot," she said. "Anybody trying to help him, [the gunman] was shooting.

"If I let [Tarek] go, he would have died, too. He's not OK. I don't know how he can get over it. He's not saying he feels guilty but I know he's feeling guilty.He keeps saying, 'He shouldn't have died.' "

Unlike his parents, Ms. Chok said, the couple's son hasn't been affected by the ordeal. She said she hopes a month-long vacation to Lebanon this summer will help the family feel better.

Ultimately, though, they feel the need to move. They came to Pittsburgh from Lebanon seven years ago and have lived on Fairfield Street for about five years.

"We like it here, but not this street anymore," said Ms. Chok, who added the couple had looked recently for a new home in Shaler. The couple said they would like Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who in a letter offered assistance to Fairfield Street residents, to provide city help in selling their home.

As for Ms. Dubaniewicz, "I'm not going anywhere. I love this neighborhood, I love this area, I love my house. You just have to do what you can and try to make life normal again. I planted some flowers and shrubbery just to make the house look warm and welcoming."

She would like to see the Poplawski house torn down, however, because of the images and memories it conjures.

"It would be nice to have a little park, a community garden, some kind of memorial would be great. Even something as tragic as this, I'm hoping something positive will come out of it.

"It's a pretty resilient neighborhood with really, really nice people. We're going to bounce back and it's going to be a safer place.

She chokes back tears.

"That's my hope, being in a safer place ... with respect for life."

Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968. First Published May 3, 2009 4:00 AM


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